Cicero Viewed As A Collector by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

Fuseli, in the introduction to the second part of his Lectures, has touched on the character of Cicero, respecting his knowledge and feeling of Art, in a manner which excites our curiosity. “Though Cicero seems to have had as little native taste for painting and sculpture, and even less than he had taste for poetry, he had a conception of Nature, and with his usual acumen frequently scattered useful hints and pertinent observations. For many of these he might probably be indebted to Hortensius, with whom, though his rival in eloquence, he lived on terms of familiarity, and who was a man of declared taste, and one of the first collectors of the time.” We may trace the progress of Cicero’s taste for the works of art. It was probably a late, though an ardent pursuit; and their actual enjoyment seems with this celebrated man rather to have been connected with some future plan of life.

Cicero, when about forty-three years of age, seems to have projected the formation of a library and a collection of antiquities, with the remote intention of secession, and one day stealing away from the noisy honours of the republic. Although that great man remained too long a victim to his political ambition, yet at all times his natural dispositions would break out, and amidst his public avocations he often anticipated a time when life would be unvalued without uninterrupted repose; but repose, destitute of the ample furniture, and even of the luxuries of a mind occupying itself in literature and art, would only for him have opened the repose of a desert! It was rather his provident wisdom than their actual enjoyment, which induced him, at a busied period of his life, to accumulate from all parts books, and statues, and curiosities without number; in a word, to become, according to the term, too often misapplied and misconceived among us, for it is not always understood in an honourable sense, a COLLECTOR!

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Like other late collectors, Cicero often appears ardent to possess what he was not able to command; sometimes he entreats, or circuitously negotiates, or is planning the future means to secure the acquisitions which he thirsted after. He is repeatedly soliciting his literary friend Atticus to keep his books for him, and not to dispose of his collections on any terms, however earnestly the bidders may crowd; and, to keep his patience in good hope (for Atticus imagined his collection would exceed the price which Cicero could afford), he desires Atticus not to despair of his being able to make them his, for that he was saving all his rents to purchase these books for the relief of his old age.

This projected library and collection of antiquities it was the intention of Cicero to have placed in his favourite villa in the neighbourhood of Rome, whose name, consecrated by time, now proverbially describes the retirement of a man of elegant taste. To adorn his villa at Tusculum formed the day-dreams of this man of genius; and his passion broke out in all the enthusiasm and impatience which so frequently characterise the modern collector. Not only Atticus, on whose fine taste he could depend, but every one likely to increase his acquisitions was Cicero persecuting with entreaties on entreaties, with the seduction of large prices, and with the expectation, that if the orator and consul would submit to accept any bribe, it would hardly be refused in the shape of a manuscript or a statue. “In the name of our friendship,” says Cicero, addressing Atticus, “suffer nothing to escape you of whatever you find curious or rare.” When Atticus informed him that he should send him a fine statue, in which the heads of Mercury and Minerva were united together, Cicero, with the enthusiasm of a maniacal lover of the present day, finds every object which is uncommon the very thing for which he has a proper place. “Your discovery is admirable, and the statue you mention seems to have been made purposely for my cabinet.” Then follows an explanation of the mystery of this allegorical statue, which expressed the happy union of exercise and study. “Continue,” he adds, “to collect for me as you have promised, in as great a quantity as possible, morsels of this kind.” Cicero, like other collectors, may be suspected not to have been very difficult in his choice, and for him the curious was not less valued than the beautiful. The mind and temper of Cicero were of a robust and philosophical cast, not too subject to the tortures of those whose morbid imagination and delicacy of taste touch on infirmity. It is, however, amusing to observe this great man, actuated by all the fervour and joy of collecting. “I have paid your agent, as you ordered, for the Megaric statues; send me as many of them as you can, and as soon as possible, with any others which you think proper for the place, and to my taste, and good enough to please yours. You cannot imagine how greatly my passion increases for this sort of things; it is such that it may appear ridiculous in the eyes of many; but you are my friend, and will only think of satisfying my wishes.” Again–“Purchase for me, without thinking farther, all that you discover of rarity. My friend, do not spare my purse.” And, indeed, in another place he loves Atticus both for his promptitude and cheap purchases: Te multum amamus, quod ea abs te diligenter, parvoque curata sunt.

Our collectors may not be displeased to discover at their head so venerable a personage as Cicero; nor to sanction their own feverish thirst and panting impatience with all the raptures on the day of possession, and the “saving of rents” to afford commanding prices–by the authority of the greatest philosopher of antiquity.

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A fact is noticed in this article which requires elucidation. In the life of a true collector, the selling of his books is a singular incident. The truth is, that the elegant friend of Cicero, residing in the literary city of Athens, appears to have enjoyed but a moderate income, and may be said to have traded not only in books, but in gladiators, whom he let out, and also charged interest for the use of his money; circumstances which Cornelius Nepos, who gives an account of his landed property, has omitted, as, perhaps, not well adapted to heighten the interesting picture which he gives of Atticus, but which the Abbe Mongault has detected in his curious notes on Cicero’s letters to Atticus. It is certain that he employed his slaves, who, “to the foot-boy,” as Middleton expresses himself, were all literary and skilful scribes, in copying the works of the best authors for his own use: but the duplicates were sold, to the common profit of the master and the slave. The state of literature among the ancients may be paralleled with that of the age of our first restorers of learning, when printing was not yet established; then Boccaccio and Petrarch, and such men, were collectors, and zealously occupied in the manual labour of transcription; immeasurable was the delight of that avariciousness of manuscript, by which, in a certain given time, the possessor, with an unwearied pen, could enrich himself by his copy: and this copy an estate would not always purchase! Besides that a manuscript selected by Atticus, or copied by the hand of Boccaccio and Petrarch, must have risen in value, associating it with the known taste and judgment of the COLLECTOR.

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